Three things to do to make brilliant presentation decks.

It seems strange to say it now but when I started my professional grown-up career of office work (as opposed to my part time working in shops, cafes and fish and chip shops that supported me as a student), PowerPoint was the least important of the computer skills I was asked to demonstrate. I remember being tested at a temp agency on my typing speed (75 wpm), my proficiency with Microsoft Word and Excel (got 100% and 65% respectively) and PowerPoint (a measly 20%). I’d never used PowerPoint for anything at that point, and the Temp recruiter reassured me it wasn’t as important as how fast I could type.

It’s incredible to me how that has changed in the intervening twenty (20!) years. PowerPoint is now probably the software most office-bound graduates use the most.

That being said, I’ve never actually had any training on how to use it. I’ve had two decades worth of muddling through though and in that time I’ve learned a few rules that have stood me in good stead for presentation decks:

1. If your company has a branded PowerPoint template use it

This may seem obvious, but the amount of times I’ve seen people “Save As” over a past presentation deck rather than go back to the original template is incredible. If a company has gone to the trouble of creating a proper POT template, with colours, fonts, graphics and spacing already in place, then for the sake of all that’s holy you should be using it.

The more you Save As over and over again, the further your deck moves away from the original. New fonts sneak in. New colours that are almost but not right – and while the changes may be subtle enough not to be obvious, anyone who knows what your branded PowerPoint decks should look like will start to feel a little uncomfortable when looking at them. You’ve basically fallen into the Uncanny Valley of branded presentations – when it looks like it should be right, but it isn’t, and your audience is increasingly squicked out by it…

2. Don’t autofit text to placeholder

This continues to be a standard setting in PowerPoint despite the collective horror of designers and presentation coaches the world over.

In short, the “Autofit text to placeholder” functionality in PPT overwrites the font sizes and spacing settings in order to squeeze more words into a text box. It makes it look truly horrible. Don’t do it.

Really there should only ever be three different font sizes in a PowerPoint deck. These are:

  • a big font size for titles
  • a medium font size for body text
  • a small font size for labels

And ideally, the small font size should be used sparingly for image credits, chart labels and the such. It’s not there to be read from afar so much as it is to ensure you’ve accurate labelled and credited your images and charts.

I’m reluctant to specify a font size for these three as so much is dependent on the font you’ve chosen, but assuming you’re going with something relatively standard – some close sans serif relative of Verdana or Arial, the medium font should not be smaller than 18 point.

If this is making you nervous and worried about how you’re going to fit all the content into the deck that you need to, ask yourself, do you really need all that content in there? If a deck is being created to support a speech or spoken presentation it should have as few words in it as possible. If you’ve got too many words to fit on one slide, put some on the next slide – after all PowerPoint slides are free, we aren’t charged by the number.

If a deck is being written to be circulated by email and read on screen (status reports consistently are created in PowerPoint and they shouldn’t be but that is a different rant), consider if you can use the slide notes to include any non-critical content or one of my other hacks for creating decks that work for reading and presenting.

3. Consistency is your friend

Whether it’s fonts (use a maximum of two, one for the title and one for body content and check any pasted content to ensure it’s in the correct font) or colours (choose your palette before you begin, ideally by setting up custom colours that match your brand rather than using the pre-set primaries) consistency is important.

Consistency is reassuring to your audience. When you project or display a slide deck with consistent fonts, colours, sizes, shapes to an audience, they relax. After the first few slides they know where to look for the key information – they can then devote the majority of their attention to listening to you, which is what you want.

However, if every slide that comes up has a different layout, different animations, different backgrounds, this leaves an audience unsettled. They may feel that they have to work harder to listen to you, or event that the inconsistency of your deck shows a shoddy approach and makes you not worth listening to.

It’s harsh, but as a presenter, your job is the make it as easy as possible for an audience to listen to you. And a consistently designed deck makes that job easier.

Consistent size and shapes of images can also have a big effect on the overall impact of your deck. A great way to do this is the right click an existing image in your deck and use the change picture functionality to replace the image. This means the size and shape of the image area stays consistent while the image content changes.

It’s one of my favourite hacks, and here’s what it looks like:


In fact all of the advice above is effectively to keep your deck as consistent as possible.

One of the big advantages of doing this is that if there is something you want to draw attention to you can then make it the one inconsistent thing, standing out with a different shape, colour or background. That one different thing will stand out so much more to your audience if the rest is the deck is aligned.

Main Image: Photo by Alex Litvin on Unsplash

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